Iran’s system of governance has a complex structure, which is difficult for outsiders to grasp. Its intelligence apparatus is even more convoluted, exacerbated by organizations having unclear and often overlapping mandates, duplication of efforts, and frequently shifting responsibilities. Ultimately, the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is vested with authority to direct Iran’s foreign and domestic policy, serving as commander in chief of Iran’s conventional and IRGC forces, and the overseer and chief customer of all of Iran’s intelligence agencies.
Iran has two major intelligence services – the MOIS and the intelligence office of the IRGC – which compete for influence and primacy. Iran’s complex system of intelligence agencies was developed so that no organization would have a monopoly over intelligence gathering and operations, but at the same time, the MOIS formally sits atop the intelligence hierarchy.
Due to events both inside and outside Iran, the division of powers and responsibilities between the MOIS and IRGC has evolved with each group taking on more specialized roles. Since 2003, the MOIS has played no role whatsoever in external militia operations or significant assassinations overseas. The IRGC’s intelligence unit owns these operations in conjunction with the Quds Force, its foreign expeditionary arm. The MOIS’s overseas role, meanwhile, has evolved in a more traditional, espionage-oriented direction. While there is occasional bureaucratic friction between the MOIS and IRGC, both share the objective of preserving Iran’s revolutionary Islamist regime and upholding velayat e-faqih, and therefore do cooperate and share intelligence. In recent years, Supreme Leader Khamenei has moved to exert greater control over both the MOIS and IRGC.
According to the Federal Research Division of the U.S. Library of Congress, “MOIS is the most powerful and well-supported ministry among all Iranian (cabinet) ministries in terms of logistics, finances, and political support,” although its budget is kept secret. All government agencies, ministries, institutions, military, and police forces are expected to share information and intelligence with the MOIS. This includes the IRGC and the Quds Force, which trains and directs terrorist proxies and militias.
The MOIS is a cabinet-level agency whose head, the minister of intelligence, is appointed by Iran’s president, the second-ranking official in the Iranian system. This gives the president a degree of authority over the MOIS which he lacks over IRGC intelligence. However, a special law dictates that the minister of intelligence must always be a cleric, giving the supreme leader, who sits atop Iran’s clerical hierarchy, additional influence over the ministry.
In 2014, the MOIS revealed that the Minister of Intelligence directs a coordination council that oversees 16 different intelligence agencies. The MOIS’s primary functions are the collection and analysis of intelligence; infiltrating and suppressing opposition and dissident organizations; thwarting threats to Iran’s revolutionary order and territorial integrity; and maintaining liaisons with Iranian proxies abroad in order to expand Iran’s ideological influence and abet terrorist and militant operations.
Iranian MOIS officers are required to be adherents of the regime’s “Twelver Shia” theology and loyal to the doctrine of velayat e-faqih. Recruits go through intensive background checks to ensure their loyalty to the Islamic Republic before they undergo training at sites in northern Tehran and Qom. The MOIS’s Foreign Directorate identifies potential agents outside of Iran sympathetic to the aims of the Islamic Revolution. Willing recruits are then brought to the MOIS’s training facilities before being dispatched into their home countries, where they engage in espionage and disinformation campaigns on behalf of the Iranian regime. The MOIS’s foreign recruiting pool is primarily drawn from Muslim countries having a strong Shi’a presence (Sunnis are sometimes recruited as well, mostly due to financial motivations), such as Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gulf States, and extends as far afield as Latin America, which has a sizeable population of Lebanese expatriates.
The other major power center in Iran’s intelligence apparatus is the IRGC’s intelligence office, which operates apart from the MOIS, both domestically and externally through the Quds Force. Although the MOIS is constitutionally above the IRGC in Iran’s intelligence hierarchy, in recent years the IRGC’s intelligence office has competed with MOIS for power and influence.
The full scope of the responsibilities of the IRGC’s intelligence office is unknown, as is the extent to which the office acts independently of the IRGC itself. One of its core functions is providing security for Iran’s nuclear program, of which the IRGC serves as the caretaker. IRGC intelligence is responsible for ensuring the safety and security of nuclear facilities including by preventing sabotage and infiltration by foreign intelligence agencies. Another function of the IRGC’s intelligence office is to coordinate the intelligence gathered by the basij, a paramilitary domestic security and police force that suppresses domestic opposition to the regime through street violence and intimidation. While the MOIS took over as Iran’s premier internal intelligence agency upon its founding in 1984, the IRGC has maintained a parallel “shadow” security division, the Sazman e-Harrasat, which functions as a domestic spy agency tasked with monitoring and dismantling opposition networks. Arrested dissidents are frequently held in IRGC-controlled prisons.
The competitive relationship between the MOIS and the IRGC’s intel office is indicative of a broader power struggle in Iranian society over civilian and military control of the country’s economic and political spheres. Recently, the IRGC’s intelligence activities and capabilities have far surpassed those of the MOIS, indicating that momentum is on its side.
Since the 2005-2013 presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the IRGC’s influence has been ascendant within Iran, heralding a transformation of the country from a theocratic autocracy to a military dictatorship. During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the IRGC capitalized on the international sanctions regime instituted in response to Iran’s illicit nuclear program to increasingly militarize Iran’s economy, taking over the dominant role in Iran’s construction, energy, automobile manufacturing, and electronics sectors. The IRGC’s entrenchment has effectively stifled the development of an Iranian private sector.
Resentment over the IRGC’s actions has buttressed the political and electoral fortunes of so-called Iranian “moderates” and “reformers,” those who seek limited economic and political liberalization. Supreme Leader Khamenei, however, has cast his lot with the IRGC, doubling down in opposition to reforms. Khamenei has viewed strengthening the IRGC as a means to solidify his own legitimacy and authority within Iran, and he has thus abetted the IRGC’s growing influence.
In the intelligence arena, the aftermath of the suspect 2009 national election marked a turning point in the competition between the MOIS and the IRGC’s intel office. The IRGC, with the approval of Supreme Leader Khamenei and reelected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, cast blame upon the MOIS for allowing the Green Movement protests to get out of hand. Ahmadinejad sacked his first-term Intelligence Minister, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, and replaced him with a former IRGC officer, Heydar Moslehi. Ahmadinejad also purged a number of vice ministers from the MOIS who had served as career intelligence officials. These moves served to chip away at barriers that had been erected to preserve the independence of Iran’s intelligence services in order to recast the MOIS in the IRGC’s image. The appointment of Moslehi and purges among the MOIS’s leadership served to consolidate IRGC and principlist (those committed to a strict interpretation of the Islamic Revolution who are resistant to any forms of liberalization) influence and create ideological conformity in the upper echelons of the MOIS, which up to that point had also accommodated moderate and reformist viewpoints.
The protest movement catalyzed by the 2009 election led Khamenei to become increasingly reliant on the IRGC as the guarantor of his political survival. In addition to expanding the IRGC’s influence within MOIS, Khamenei upgraded the IRGC’s intelligence units in the aftermath of the 2009 election from a “directorate” to an “organization,” giving the IRGC itself more power in Iran’s intelligence community. The 1983 Law on Intelligence which created the MOIS had specifically forbade the IRGC from running an intelligence “organization.” Ayatollah Khomeini and his backers at the time, including Khamenei, believed strongly that the elected government should have the dominant role in the intelligence arena, and that military outfits such as the IRGC should only have intelligence capabilities in line with military exigencies.
Underscoring the significance of the IRGC’s upgrade, Khamenei moved to appoint one of his closest confidantes, Hossein Taeb, to head the IRGC’s intelligence organization in 2009. Taeb remains in that role to this day. A staunch regime loyalist, Taeb had been a student of Khamenei during Iran’s early revolutionary period. During his career, which included stints as deputy commander of MOIS counterintelligence and commander of the basij, Taeb “developed a reputation as one of the regime's most violent interrogators of counterrevolutionary and "seditionist" elements.” With his personal enforcer in place, Khamenei has endorsed granting the IRGC expansive surveillance powers. With Khamenei’s backing, the ascendant IRGC has seen bigger budgets and expanding jurisdictions.
The IRGC’s takeover of Iran’s economy, military, and intelligence sectors has engendered backlash. President Hassan Rouhani was elected twice on a platform that prioritized boosting civilian enterprises and reining in the IRGC’s pervasiveness. Rouhani has sought to restore civilian control over the MOIS and curtail the IRGC’s increasing dominance over Iranian intelligence, but has had to tread lightly so as not to provoke reprisals from Khamenei, going so far as to back bigger budgets for the IRGC.
Since Rouhani’s initial election victory in 2013, the IRGC intelligence office has intensified its repression of domestic critics and activists. Following Rouhani’s reelection in 2017, the deputy speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Motahari, criticized Rouhani’s intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, for failing to be an effective bulwark against the IRGC’s intelligence office. “Expansion of the range of activities of the intelligence units of the IRGC is not acceptable. Interference of the intelligence organs in each other’s domains is not sustainable,” said Motahari in a rebuke of the IRGC. Alavi’s response was telling: “If the supreme leader orders us to give away all of our authority to another entity, we bow and obey.” This exchange highlights the fecklessness of Rouhani and his allies’ efforts to stand up to the IRGC’s excesses. As a result, the IRGC’s intelligence organization has gained the upper hand in the power struggle, and its ascendance appears guaranteed for the near future, particularly as Rouhani has moved to make accommodations with the IRGC as an antidote to the revived protest movement that has taken root in Iran since late December 2017.